Life in the slow lane

By Richard Leighton

Eastern painted turtles, such as the one in the accompanying photograph, are starting to bask in Downeast Maine’s ponds now. In central Maine, midland painted turtles (a very similar species) are doing the same. We’ll get back to these gentle creatures, but first a few thoughts about turtledom generally in Maine.

We’re fortunate in Maine to have those two native species of painted turtles as well as six other types of inland (not counting sea) turtles. On the other hand, these turtles may not be feeling so lucky to be Mainers.

Part of the problem is that turtles are “cold blooded” and our northern climate is colder and more unpredictable than you might want if you were sealed into your home with no thermostat to prevent your organs from shutting down.

There also appear to be recurring changes to natural turtle habitat here due to farming, commercialism, deforestation, reforestation, “gentrification” of rural settings, and roadbuilding. Real estate buyers aren’t the only ones who have problems finding the right location.

Finally — and most timely — there is an inland turtle compulsion in June and July. The females leave their field ponds and other home grounds to bury their fertilized eggs elsewhere; then, they retrace those painfully slow steps to return home. 

Evolution has not been kind to turtles when it comes to road-crossing skills. That’s why the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife has sponsored an excellent social media program on how to help nest-seeking turtles cross the road. (First Rule: don’t risk doing it in moving traffic.)

Now, back to our favorite Maine turtle, the eastern painted. Their principal activity these days seems to be basking in the sun. It seems settled that they and other turtles use the thermal rays to help regulate their temperatures. However, some scientists theorize that painted turtles also bask to absorb needed vitamin D and/or to kill parasites. 

Painted turtles are discreet creatures: the male asks the important question by stroking the female’s face with his front claw; if she agrees, they’ll disappear into the depths of the pond and mate. Soon thereafter, she’ll begin that journey to find a nest site and lay her eggs. These will hatch in the fall, but the nickel-sized hatchlings usually remain underground in the shallow nest. 

When the ground freezes, so do the hatchlings — their hearts and other organs cease to function, they get no oxygen, they’re virtually dead, and some do die if the nest temperature goes below 25 degrees F. (Mature painted turtles usually hibernate during the winter in the muck at the bottom of ponds, where they’re not likely to freeze.) 

In the spring or early summer, the recently hatched turtles dig themselves out and instinctively seek a watery home. The mature turtles occasionally will rise to bask on warm April and May days, but usually return to the warmer bottom muck before nightfall. (The first painted turtle basker in our pond this year was on April 21.)

Editor’s note: Brooklin author/photographer Richard J. Leighton creates the popular “In the Right Place” posts online about life and nature in Maine. He shares a post the second Thursday of each month in The Ellsworth American.

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